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How to Use Balance in Photography Composition

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Related course: Simply Stunning Landscapes

Composing your images well is a fundamental idea behind capturing beautiful shots. There are many ways to use photography composition to add interest to your images.
Balance in photography is one of these important examples of effective composition. Learn what it is and how to use it in the article below.
An aerial shot of a beach landscape demonstrating balance in photography

How to Use Balance in Photography

What is balance in photography? is a good place to start. It determines whether the photo is pleasing and harmonious or uncomfortable and unresolved.
Take balance in its literal sense and the analogy of weighing scales comes to mind. Here I’ll show you how to use balance in composition for better photos.
If you divide this photo in half with a fulcrum in the middle, you can place objects in different parts of the scene. These make balanced photography or unbalanced photography.
By balancing elements in your image, you can create symmetrical balance. Or you can create something different.
When a photo is symmetrical, it’s easy to identify the balance. But obvious photography balance can prove somewhat boring. This is why asymmetrical balances can add interest.

Example 1

I like the photo below but, if I was relying only on its balance, it would have been boring. It is not a true representation of balance photography as a definition.
An evening harbour town
Along with placement, size and visual weight are balancing elements. It depends on their positioning. They have the opportunity to create balanced images.
For example, let’s say you have a small and a large object. These are impossible, for balance in photography. They are not equal distances from the centre of the photo.
The main subject has an informal balance in the image. It can be used in the rule of thirds, where the secondary subject equals out the weight in the image.
Try placing the smaller object to the far edge of the frame and the larger object a little off centre. The balance becomes a lot better resolved. As it would be with actual weights on a scale.

Example 2

Let’s look at the visual weights of the two primary subjects in this example. It’s from reader Timothy Sax. It is not a typical balanced composition,
Check the off-centre subject. The smaller shadow in the negative space, at the edge of the photo, counterbalances it.
He’s also used converging and horizontal lines which help to provide a solid base for the photo. This, in turn, provides stability and balance.
A photo of a skateboarder in mid air demonstrating stability and balance photography
It’s good to have balance in photography. But if you want to make your images a little more interesting, disrupt the balance. Unbalanced compositions help to attract the viewer’s attention.
As well as unusual placement of a single object, dynamic tension and single leading lines. These all help to create unbalanced photography.
They produce a feeling of unresolved tension.

Example 3

Here it is in another one of our balance photography examples.
A calm and serene harbor scene demonstrating balance in composition
Balance is, of course, much more complicated than weighing out a couple of objects in a photo. It’s uncommon to actually see two objects sitting on a solid base. This happens in architecture, symmetry and reflections most often.
The weighing scale analogy is good for explaining the basics. But for the majority of photographers, photography balance is much more complicated. And there are a lot less rules.

Example 4

I would consider the image below unbalanced. The main visual weight of the subject is to the right of the frame. The vertical lines imply a solid base and the horizontals create a zig zag of natural tension.
This acts as a weight for the left side of the photo. But it’s not enough to make it feel like a true balance photography definition.
A portrait of a man indoors, balance in photography composition

Balanced or Unbalanced?

Both balanced and unbalanced images are compositional techniques. The difference here is that balanced images are often those with equal visual weight. A mirror image, if you will.
The eyes of the viewer determine balanced or unbalanced. It’s up to the photographer to decide how they want the viewer to perceive the photograph.
Deciding between balanced and unbalanced is like deciding between tension and harmony. Each degree of choice has its different uses.
We’ve already looked at balanced photos. Let’s have a look at unbalanced photos and their uses. They still provide a good composition for important subjects.
Sometimes you’ll want to add dynamic tension to your photos. You’ll find that the tension itself acts as a technique for unbalancing elements.
In the photo below, it’s hard to find the centre of gravity. This is because the image goes outwards from the photo in so many contrasting directions. The small detail in the top lefthand corner is even more distracting.
A modern bridge taken from an interesting angle
You may also want to unbalance a photo to direct the viewer’s eye and attention to a certain part of it.
You should do this with caution.
Make sure not to choose a position for your subject that’s too unusual. The unbalanced technique you’re using will become very obvious. That’s much less effective.

Example 1

You’ll notice that the balance is leaning towards the left-hand side of the photo. This leads your eyes to wonder what’s in the rest of the photo. Your attention moves towards the pier and the people on the beach.
This lack of balance makes my photo more interesting and makes my viewers look at it for longer.
A man playing guitar by the sea, shot without focusing on balance in photography

Example 2

Now take the same effect and exaggerate it with the use of a shallow depth of field and less possible subjects. You’ll get results like my photo below. It’s hard to tell whether the BBQ or the tyre swing is the subject.
This unbalanced technique can change the subject. It goes from the obvious to what may seem insignificant. This sparks the viewer’s curiosity. It makes them want to look at something that they think they’re not ‘supposed’ to be looking at.
An old rusty barbecue and swing set shot with unbalanced composition

Example 3

Now consider your subjects’ position in the frame by looking at height. It may bring up ideas of the two subjects having equal weight or not.
In the photo below, the fireworks seem to balance out the weight of the stage. The stage is a lot wider. But the size of the fireworks and their vertical position creates a downforce. This appears on the left side of the image.
Different composition techniques have different effects. The better you understand them, the better your balance will be. The idea of conceptual balance idea is one of the main techniques in adding interest.
A fireworks display beside an outdoor stage - balance photography definition

A Note to Finish

As professional photographers, we spend a great deal of our time creating awesome images. We use alternative composition techniques that the viewer is unlikely to pick up on.
You may find it frustrating at times that they’re not seeing all your hard work. But that’s not what’s important. It’s the creation of a photo that you and your peers know is good, that is.
The more aware you are of the effects of balance on your photos, the better your photography will be. It pays to think about how you want to portray your image before picking up your camera.
The degree of balance is at the heart of every photo and you can’t ignore it. Remember that any technique, when used to excess, is going to lose its worth.
A man holding up two printed signs announcing a festival is sold out - photography balance

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5 comments
  1. Hey Josh,
    Thanks for these tips. Composition is really important when taking photos as you rightly put it.
    I take a lot of photos when I travel and I can’t help but think about the caption and the composition when I shoot them. I especially like that waterfront photo in the post.
    I have some friends who hate to shoot when its cloudy out, but I love that as it brings out a different dimension in the photo.
    Do you find it takes you forever to get the shot right as you are busy composing/balancing it?

    1. Hey Kerwin,
      First off, I recommend that you stop thinking of captions while shooting, in fact, I recommend you don’t caption your photos at all. Text in (or in this case, alongside) photos have a visual weight that encourages your viewer to think in a certain way, and while this is useful inside a photo, when you add a caption, you take away a part of the viewers imagination.
      As far as spending time composing/balancing the photo, yes and no. Yes, I spend time changing my positioning to improve the composition, but this is a natural part of photography. No, balance barely takes up any time at all, it’s something that I (and you will too) see naturally and take into consideration when the thought of the photo comes into my head. When you’re used to it, it becomes second nature.
      Hope all this helps,
      Josh

    1. It’s pretty easy to create a good unbalanced photo, and the same could be said about balanced photos in the right conditions; the area you need to watch out for is the ambiguously unbalanced middle. – Josh

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